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Am J Hum Biol. 2010 Jul-Aug;22(4):546-56. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.21045.

Toward quantifying the usage costs of human immunity: Altered metabolic rates and hormone levels during acute immune activation in men.

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Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA.


There is a paucity of data on the energetic demands of human immune functions, despite the fact that both clinical medicine and evolutionary biology would benefit from further clarification of these costs. To better understand the energetic requirements of mounting a mild immune response, as well as some of the major hormonal changes underlying these metabolic changes, we examined changes in resting metabolic rate (RMR) and hormones during and after respiratory tract infection in young adult men. An epidemiologic passive detection design was used to recruit 25 nonfebrile subjects naturally infected with respiratory tract pathogens. Symptomology, percent body fat, RMR, salivary testosterone and cortisol, and other information were collected at a minimum of three time points during and after convalescence. Comparisons of the differences in RMR, testosterone, and cortisol between sampling days within individual cases were made using paired t-tests. Participants experienced 8% higher RMR during illness, and a subset of these men experienced a mean increase greater than 14%. The participants also experienced 10% lower testosterone levels during illness, and a subset of these participants experienced a mean decrease of 30%, although cortisol levels did not change significantly. These results document elevated RMR following natural pathogen exposure in adult humans, demonstrating that even mild immune reactions can elicit significant increases in energy expenditure. Understanding the costs of immunity and the immunomodulatory actions of hormones are central to understanding the role of immunity in human life history evolution.

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